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The technology to replace mammograms will be painless.
courtesy Dr. Elise Fear

Fear, a breast's best friend

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Scheduling an annual breast check-up is no fun task, especially when most women find mammograms to be uncomfortable and painful procedures.

University of Calgary electrical engineering associate professor Dr. Elise Fear is trying to eliminate this common barrier by creating a safer diagnostic tool for breast cancer.

Her 10-year project involves scanning the entire breast surface for tumours with low-power microwaves. The scans will then be translated into realistic 3D images.

"It's still a technology that's in the early stages and we're really excited about the new study because it gives us the opportunity to start understanding the role of this technology in the management of breast health," said Fear.

According to Fear, using tissue sensing adapting radar should be a less invasive way of detecting breast cancer.

"With a scan that doesn't have a negative health impact, we could scan frequently and we could compare scans over a time period to access changes in the breast health," said Fear. "I think our main benefit is that we're a real patient friendly approach. We don't use breast compression, we don't use ionizing radiation."

The new technology is on its third prototype. First, a woman lays facedown on a cushioned flatbed and immerses one breast in canola oil. Short pulses of microwaves then illuminate the breast while a sensor detects reflections in the breast tissue. As the antenna moves in different directions, researchers collect data on the electrical properties of the breast tissue through 3D images.

Fear said one of the biggest challenges with this approach is the ability to identify the reflections as belonging to the tumour and not surrounding areas.

"The signal that we're trying to identify is that reflection from the tumour," said Fear. "It sounds fairly straight forward, but we get reflections from all kinds of things other than tumours such as skin, glandular tissue and blood vessels."

U of C researchers are trying to determine the effectiveness of the machine by starting a pilot study with 10 volunteers early next spring. Only two volunteers have been scanned and another 12 volunteers-- nine breast cancer patients recruited by Dr. Daphne Mew at the Foothills Medical Centre and three non-cancer patients-- have been used for the creation of breast models.

"We're looking to having a technique that is comfortable for patients so that regular examination is something they're willing to participate in," said Fear.

The process is expected to detect tumours three millimetres in size or greater. As this new technology becomes more sophisticated, Fear's research team hopes to distinguish malignant tumours from ones that are benign. They hope to apply these techniques to detect different types of cancer as well.

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